The looming Palestinian Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) that is expected to occur in the upcoming September session of the UN General Assembly, has sent the Israeli Foreign Ministry diplomats into high gear in the hopes of offsetting the Palestinian initiative and convincing the Ramallah-based Palestinians, led by Mahmoud Abbas, to return to the negotiating table. In its efforts to curtail the Palestinian move, Israel has expended a great deal of energy on Germany – its most important ally in the European Union.
According to the Polish Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW) in Warsaw, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle (FDP) and Dirk Niebel (FDP), the German Minister of Development Corporation, traveled on June 13-14, 2011 to Benghazi, one of the towns controlled by Libyan rebel forces, and then went on to Israel and the Palestinian territories. Germany, as reported by the OSW, “is trying to negotiate the question of the proclamation of Palestine’s independence between Israel and the Palestinians. It is interested in the proclamation not being unilateral and being based on a compromise negotiated with Israel.”
The main target of the visit, according to the OSW, was preventing the Palestinian proclamation of a Unilateral Declaration of Independence. At the U.N. General Assembly, the Palestinians intend to request recognition of their state, which would be comprised of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. If the vote was held today, approximately 100 countries would recognize Palestine’s independence. This would be not only the “traditional anti-Israel majority,” but probably also Spain, Ireland, Norway, France and the UK.
Talks between Israel and the Palestinians broke up in September 2010, when the Palestinians walked out, and have not resumed since. The contended reason for the Palestinian walk out has been that Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, did not extend the building freeze on West Bank settlements. The real reason, however, is the Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas’ attempt to exact further concessions from Israel through the threat of the Unilateral Declaration of Independence and, ultimately, the unwillingness of the Palestinian leaders to live with the permanent reality of a Jewish State.
Germany fears that Palestine will be another block in the domino effect of the Arab revolutions. In the worst-case scenario this could end – in Germany’s opinion – in another armed conflict. Germany, unlike Britain and France, has not threatened Israel with voting for the UDI.
German-Israeli ties have a special dimension to them, not the least of which is the shared history of the most horrific crime in modern time – the Holocaust – which was perpetrated by the Germans against the Jewish people. The Germans have, for the most part, striven to regain a measure of moral legitimacy in the aftermath of the Holocaust by working to ensure that it remains true to protecting the remnant of the Jewish people, albeit not through military force, but diplomacy.
In accepting the credentials of the new German ambassador to Israel, Andreas Michaelis, Israel’s President Shimon Peres declared during the official ceremony in Jerusalem: “The relations between the Federal Republic of Germany and Israel are very special, very close and very meaningful. It is not the usual diplomatic relations, it is a long memory, many emotions and many hopes all combined.” Peres added, “I have the highest regard for [German] President Wulff. His attitude to Israel is warm, friendly and sincere and we appreciate it very much. We have much admiration for Chancellor Merkel who possesses something very rare in politics, namely the confidence in her honesty, devotion, and seriousness, and we are lucky to have her as a friend.” In response, newly installed Ambassador Michaelis said, “It is my objective to preserve the special quality of the relationship between the Federal Republic of Germany and the state of Israel, and also to work towards peace in the region. The Chancellor has very clearly stated that right of the Jewish State to exist is the raison d’être of the Federal Republic of Germany. As head of the mission here, I will try my best to make that a reality on a daily basis.”
Michaelis pointed out in an interview with the Israeli daily Maariv (8/18/2011) that “Germany will continue its commitment to protect Israel’s security in every conceivable arena.” Asked whether the deadlocked peace process has impacted the special relations between Germany and Israel, Michaelis rejected the idea, stating that the relations between Germany and Israel are complicated as a result of the Holocaust. Still, he said, two things are changing in front of our eyes. The moral authority of the Holocaust survivors is diminishing as they die out, and the question is how we retain the memory of the Holocaust without the living survivors. Second, he added, Germany, too, is changing. “Germany has a great number of immigrants, and many of them are Muslims, but they are German too, and the operative question is how do they remember the Holocaust?”
Michaelis explained, “At times there are situations whereby a variety of groups in Germany are critical of Israel on the peace process and Germany’s relations with Israel. At such times it is particularly important for Germans to hear a clear response from our government. Chancellor Merkel rejects such criticism in a clear voice, and states unambiguously that the relationship with Israel is special, and that Germany continues to care about Israel’s security, as part of our historical responsibility of Germany towards Israel.”
Germany today has become very involved in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process; in contrast to the role it played 20 years ago during the Oslo Agreements when Germany was not considered a major player. Michaelis pointed out that “Israel is situated in a dangerous region, and we believe that things would get even more dangerous for Israel if we will fail to solve some of the central problems in the region, one of which is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
According to Michaelis, just about every politician in Germany would agree that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must be solved by political means. He charges that there is no time to waste, and that efforts must be invested in the right instruments of negotiations. That is why Chancellor Merkel was the first European leader to announce the rejection of the Palestinian Unilateral Declaration of Independence.
Michaelis said that “Germany succeeded to advance a position at the EU that prefers the two sides [Israel and the Palestinians] return to negotiations. At the moment the EU does not have a unified position on how to vote in September. But we have a common stance for the return of the parties to the negotiating table, and many of us are working on a formula that would make it possible.”
While the German government has been Israel’s primary ally in Europe, it is essential to note that German corporations are involved in trade with Iran, and that for many Germans, guilt over the Holocaust is largely over, and while acts of anti-Semitism are combated by the government, it is, nonetheless, a growing phenomenon. All this aside, in today’s Europe, Germany is the only EU member to stand with Israel on rejecting the Palestinian UDI.